Il Baretto – The Little Bar That Could

Il Baretto
43 Blandford Street
London W1U 7HF
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • Dinner menu: starters & salads £4.50-14, pizzas £10-14, ‘primi’ £9-20, mains £18-30, sides £3.50-5.50, desserts £7-10
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal

Il Baretto aims to project a sleek and modern image, which it pulls off just fine in terms of aesthetics, but the food underlying its somewhat perplexing menu groupings is generally classic Italian fare. Overall, the dishes we had were fresh, well prepared and some were bursting with flavor (it’s all about the burrata), although none of it – save for a rather unusual dessert – was particularly adventurous. It is a nice place to go if you fancy a fancy Italian meal and don’t want any surprises, and the staff is generally very welcoming and professional – plus you may find it interesting for people watching. I liked it and appreciated the skill in the kitchen, but wasn’t bowled over.

The phantom floor

So that’s it, we’re officially residents of New York.

Given America’s love affair with all things Italian – especially the food – I thought I’d start off my Stateside blogging with a little review (‘little’ by my standards, I suppose) of a restaurant run by Italians and managed by a London-based restaurant mafia boss.

That would be Il Baretto on Blandford Street, just off Marylebone High Street and seconds away from a trio of restaurants beginning with ‘L’  (L’Autre Pied, La Fromagerie, Le Relais de Venise) and other interesting places such as Trishna and The Providores.

The location has, so far as I am aware, been an Italian restaurant for a number of years (I think it was called Giusto in its last incarnation). Arjun Waney is the man behind Il Baretto, who decided to add the restaurant to his growing portfolio of higher-end eateries in 2009 – he is also behind the likes of Zuma, Roka and La Petit Maison.

The little bar in blue and white

Il Baretto apparently means “the little bar” in Italian – at least according to Google Translator – and not a type of gun, as I had first envisaged, which screwed up my original choice of title for this post (I can hear your sighs of disappointment). And a little bar it is, on the face of it at least. The defiantly dainty but certainly swanky small ground floor room does have a little bar at the back, as well as a few close-to-the-floor tables and a row of stools along a small counter that face the window looking out to the street. Perfect for a glass of prosecco and a snack – maybe a pizza or some cicchetti – but not much more than that.

You will almost definitely be met by Italians when you check in at the little reception desk immediately past the door – so far as I could tell, there were only Italians in the front of house. And the ones at reception will probably be very tall and glamorous looking women.

While I had sampled some of their pizzas on a previous occasion in the upstairs room – it was my good friend the Phantom Medic’s birthday, and he really likes it there, you see – I had never been to the underground lair that lay below. As one of the aforementioned Italian models led us down the narrow staircase, I was surprised to find a rather large and pretty slick formal dining room in the subterranean space, replete with a semi-open kitchen. I was told by the Phantom that it tends to be quite a scene down there at night. And I can confirm that during our meal an A-list Hollywood star was indeed sitting in the corner near our table – so the good doctor doesn’t tell a fib.

As it happens, I had been invited to dine that evening by said doctor as a sort of send-off before moving to the US. It is one of his favorite haunts and he had wanted me to try it out for some time.

Confusing menu, simple food

After being greeted by a slew of Italian waiters – each one welcomed Dr. J as if he was their long-lost best friend and asked after him, his family, his cat – all par for the course when dining out with this guy – while I waited in the recesses, wondering when we could sit down and order some food! 🙂

Decision time in the little bar with a big dining room

I found the menu at Il Baretto to be slightly odd. There was one page of ‘Starters’, which included a fairly random assortment of dishes (many were not your typical ‘antipasti’) and a selection of salads; then there was a page with ‘Carpacci’ at the top and ‘Primi’ below (were the carpacci Starters or Primi, and what exactly was the difference?); then a page which I assumed to be main courses, which included the sub-headings of ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Robata Grill’ (hmm…rolling concepts out horizontally across the group, are we…Roka anyone?). Anyhow, I found it difficult to figure out how many of what type of dishes to order and so forth, but luckily there wasn’t really a problem as the Phantom knew the menu well and we devised a tasting regime of sorts for ourselves, with the help of the friendly and proficient waiter.

Once we had ordered, we briefly chatted with the sommelier to select a bottle of wine that might suit the rather fishy direction the meal had taken and ended up with a bit of a gem.

2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Quarz, Terlano

A special meal deserved a special wine, after all, and I was very happy to be drinking Terlan‘s 2007 Sauvignon ‘Quarz’. It is a wine from Italy’s Alto Adige region and is named after the quartz which runs through Cantina Terlano’s vineyard. It had a remarkable aroma, a striking acidity, a very long and sophisticated finish, and was a refreshing companion to the savory part of our meal. It retails at just under £35 a bottle and I believe it was marked up to about double that at the restaurant.

Burrata with Cherry Tomatoes

First up was one of Il Baretto’s burrata platters, on which you can have the plump orb of cheese and cream accompanied by Parma ham, grilled courgettes or cherry tomatoes. As you can tell from the photo, we chose the tomatoes. This was simply outstanding. The quality of the mozzarella was excellent and it was gloriously creamy inside. I thought it went really well with the simple pairing of sweet cherry tomatoes. It was probably the single best thing we ate that night. I would order it again without thinking twice. 9/10.

Tuna Carpaccio with Toasted Hazelnuts

The tuna carpaccio in the second dish of the preamble was itself very good, although it wasn’t completely raw – it seemed to have been quickly seared on the outside. This is a trend in many Italian restaurants as of late, where the term ‘carpaccio’ (which means raw meat or fish) has been elasticized to include seared and partially cooked items as well. The accompanying sauce was, to use that god-awful word, ‘interesting’ but not necessarily in a bad way…I just couldn’t quite decide whether it worked or not. The toasted hazelnuts were good (when do they ever taste bad?), but again, I wasn’t sure they were the best accompaniment for the fish. Like George Clooney, I was up in the air…about this dish at least. 6/10.

Rosemary Bread

The rosemary bread however was fantastic. I believe it was essentially a version of their pizza base sprinkled with a bit of very good olive oil and dressed with some sprigs of rosemary. It was the perfect vessel for scooping up the lush burrata and worked really well with the cheese and tomatoes (which worked just fine on their own too, but this added a nice extra dimension). 8/10.

By the way, the Phantom is a huge fan of their pizzas, and having sampled a few during his birthday shindig, I can attest that they aren’t bad at all – the thin-crust dough (basically the bread mentioned above) is a good one, very light and crispy.

Oven Baked Sea Scallops, Venetian Style

We were brought out an extra course on the house – I told you the good doctor is well known and liked here! They were perfectly seared and the ‘Venetian’ crumbs were the perfect partner for them. There was nothing too fussy about them, but they were delicious (I squeezed a tiny bit of lemon on top to give it a tiny dose of acidity, which I thought enhanced the taste a bit). 7/10.

Linguine with Lobster & Tomato Sauce

We shared two primi pasta dishes. The first was a bowl of pasta that I don’t think was on the menu, and was made up of linguine, lobster and a tomato-based sauce. The pasta itself was excellent and, if I were a betting man, I’d say it was homemade. The sweetness of the lobster came through well, possibly because the tomato sauce wasn’t overpowering. In fact, my only gripe with the dish was that the sauce was sort of lacklustre, but maybe this was on purpose so as not to drown out the star of the bowl (?). It was a good pasta dish but nothing that interesting. 6/10.

Linguine with Courgette & Shrimp

I preferred the second bowl of linguine, which was one of the specials that day. The main ingredients, besides the identical scrumptious pasta itself, were some large prawns and sliced courgette (do I have to say zucchini now that I’m back in the States, and also because it’s Italian food?). And while the sauce here was lighter still than the tomato base in the lobster pasta, I preferred it – it was vibrant and I think I surprised the Phantom by liking this more. It was very good but not quite up the level I would call excellent. 7/10.

Salt Baked Wild Sea Bass

Unfortunately due to the small size of our table – even though the bill revealed that we were seated at Table #1! – our waiter was not able to perform the usual table-side presentation and prepare the salt-baked wild sea bass that we were going to share in front of us. Nevertheless, it tasted the part. The fish itself was soft, firm, flaky and the remnants of the salt lived on mildly in the flesh. It wasn’t a knock-out, as a similar version I had from Francesco at L’Anima was (I actually made one there myself with his help one Saturday) but it was tasty and satisfied my seafood cravings that evening. 7/10.

Although we had ingested quite a bit of food by that point, it had all been pretty light so we still had room for dessert. We were intrigued to hear about the dessert of the day, and had to do a triple-take to ensure we had heard the waiter’s description correctly.

Fried Aubergine, White & Dark Chocolate, Pistachio, Red Berries

It sounded so strange, we just had to try it. Yes, if you read the caption for the above photo, than you heard it correctly folks, it was an aubergine (eggplant) based dessert! It was certainly very pretty, at least in my estimation. Three discs of fried aubergine had been layered with white chocolate cream between them, and on the very bottom lay a hidden dark chocolate base. Leaning against this delicately balanced brown and white striped trunk was a branch of tart red berries. The whole thing was dusted with pistachio crumbs finished off with a dash of powdered sugar.

At first bite, the taste of aubergine was too prominent for my liking; however, when portioned up with an adequate amount of the white (and darker) chocolate and a berry or two, I could understand the rationale of its creator…it was actually strangely very good. In fact, I found myself liking it more and more and then suddenly, as fast as it had appeared (okay, it didn’t appear *that* fast), it ‘twas gone. I ended up really liking it, and bonus points for using an ingredient I would NEVER associate with dessert. 7/10.

Lemon Tart with Amaretto and Berry Sauce

Unfortunately, while the lemon tart looked like it might be a winner – and I am usually a sucker for any half-decent lemon tart – it was very average and was probably the most disappointing thing we ate during the evening. I was too sweet and didn’t have that bracing sour streak you need to balance this dessert well. I picked at it nonchalantly but was, in truth, more interested in my sticky wine. 5/10.

As a side note, I found the dessert pricing to be rather punchy at £7-10 each.

I’m never one to let a good Ryé pass by

Ah yes, how could I forget to mention the dessert wine? As you will know if you read this blog regularly (there must be some people who do, right?), I just love my sweet wines.

2007 Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria, Donnafugata (Sicilia)

So when I spied a Donnafugata Ben Ryé on the menu, I couldn’t resist it. I had tried it once before at Launceston Place a while back on the recommendation of @Gastro1 and remembered that I liked it quite a bit. I tend to agree with my tasting note from the original glass I had:

“It had huge peach on the nose and on the mid-palate, with dry nectarine on the finish, with very good acidity. It was a syrupy and quite oily (it coated the glass nicely when swirled) intense nectar. I thought it was almost like drinking an alcoholic peach nectar…amazing it comes from grapes!”

Wonderful stuff, but not for the faint-hearted.

It was time to cough up & head out

I sipped on my glass of the Ben Ryé as we leisurely came to the end of our pleasant dinner. I’m gonna miss this guy. But then again, he seems to sprout up everywhere – a doctor that’s a disease? – so I’m sure I’ll see him Stateside very soon.

Pedigree, my dear Watson

Overall, the food at Il Baretto was very competent and we had an enjoyable evening. The service was professional and efficient and the waiters definitely have distinct personalities (hey, they’re Italian). Although the menu seemed to be slightly discombobulated, most of the food on offer is pretty straight-forward Italian cuisine and the skill in the kitchen is evident as many of the dishes we ordered were simple ones on the face of it, but are also very easy to botch. The pedigree of Mr. Waney’s collection of kitchens, then, is there to be seen, even if the dining room itself is not as intriguing as some of the other rooms within his famiglia.

Things that stand out in my mind are the buratta, the rosemary flat bread, the quality of the pasta itself, and the skill in cooking the fish, plus the somewhat alarming though disarmingly delicious aubergine dessert. But there were a few question marks, such as the sauce on the tuna ‘carpaccio’ (which wasn’t raw) and also the completely lacklustre lemon tart. Nevertheless, if you stick with the more classic dishes, you are likely to eat well at Il Baretto, and it is a good place for people-watching too, at least when we were there.

While Il Baretto doesn’t quite make it into my current group of top Italian restaurants in London – which includes Ristorante SempliceRiver Café and L’Anima (the caveat being that I have yet to visit Locanda Locatelli or Zafferano as well as some other perennial London favorites) – the food seems sure-footed and they can charm you if they are so inclined.

Another enjoyable Italian restaurant in London – just don’t go expecting something new

Also, while on the subject, I recently revisited Bocca di Lupo, which I originally had lukewarm feelings about, and it impressed me much more this time around – it’s definitely worth a try, especially given the prices, which are not what I’d describe as cheap but are not expensive either.

PS – the title of the post references a classic US children’s story, and I used a reference to Sherlock Holmes in the last section title only because the restaurant is so close to Baker Street! 🙂

PPS – pardon the poor quality of the photos, it was a very dark dining room and until @catty and @londoneater recently showed me how to utilize some of the key features on my camera, I struggled getting decent shots in dim light, dim whit that I am.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 7/10

Wine: the mainly Italian wine list (there is a short French section) is a good size – not too many, and certainly not a tiny selection – and there are some classics on the list as well as a few more interesting prospects. The sommelier was very knowledgeable and helpful, and the wine we had was marked up about 2x from memory. The prices for their by-the-glass wines are all between £6-8.50 per 175ml serving, which is appreciated, and there are a number of wines at under £40/bottle mark, which is welcome given the pricing of the food seems to be a bit more ambitious. They also have a Fine & Rare section on the list which is purely made up of Italian wines and comprises some heavier weight names such as the “aias”, i.e. Sassacaia and Ornellaia.

*Note: I have been to Il Baretto twice, once for pizzas upstairs and once for formal dinner downstairs. In case there was any doubt, the Phantom and I paid for the meal, except for the extra dish of scallops which was sent out by the chef without us requesting it.*

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Bocca di Lupo – A Good, Reasonably Priced Italian in Wolves’ Clothing

Bocca di Lupo
12 Archer Street
London W1D 7BB
Website
Map
Online Reservations

Approximate pricing: small plates from £4-14, large plates from £9-22 & desserts from £5-7

A welcome addition to the London dining scene with a variety of good Italian dishes at reasonable prices – but as my cynical side expected, it certainly didn’t live up to the initial hype that surrounded its launch...on this occasion

A welcome addition to the London dining scene with a variety of good Italian dishes at reasonable prices – but as my cynical side expected, it certainly didn’t live up to the initial hype that surrounded its launch...on this occasion

Last one to the party

Just what everyone needs, another review of Bocca di Lupo, right?

I know other London-based food bloggers have claimed that they were the ‘last serious foodie’ to try this supremely hyped, moderately priced Italian in a small backstreet of Soho, but no, surely this supreme honor must now rest with yours truly (?).

Well, whatever the case, I tried to eat at Bocca di Lupo (BDL) a few times over the past few months, but my plans always seemed to get scuppered by something or other. I finally did take the missus for our first meal here last weekend for a very late lunch. And I must say I am becoming much fonder of long lunches than drawn-out dinners as you have the rest of the day to digest the food and the experience.

We didn’t eat too much that morning in order to be nice and hungry for our 2.30pm reservation. As we arrived, the restaurant’s facade was basking in the afternoon sunlight (see below) in what is a fairly nondescript little street that juxtaposes some of Soho’s more, shall we say, ‘juicier’ institutions. It turned out we didn’t need a reservation after all. Upon arriving, the gorgeous long marble bar was pretty much deserted and the square formal dining area in the back was two-thirds full at best. A waiter found us standing near the doorway after a minute and took us to the back, where our table awaited.

Bocca di Lupo - Facade Bocca di Lupo - Chandelier Bocca di Lupo - Interior
Transforming a rather awkward space to a very appealing interior – the grand & contemporary chandelier is particularly lovely

I rather like the interior design of the restaurant: soft tones on the walls and ceilings; wooden tables with not cloths and matchy brown chairs and benches; nice down-lighting; and a striking, enormous circular chandelier. It is sort of like a bowling alley, but a very well appointed one at that, letting you know at once that it is a casual place, but one that takes itself seriously. The only real niggle I have with the decor are the three large paintings that hang along the wall I was facing for the entire meal. They don’t really seem to mesh with the other elements of the space: while they are paintings of food, they are quite somber, recalling old master paintings. I would have imagined the walls to be covered with classy old viva Italia ads or something a bit more vibrant and present-day. But I am a diner, not a designer, so I will leave that to the experts.

Decisions, decisions, decisions

After being seated, we were given copies of the little paper menus, which are A4 sheets folded in half. As most of the other reviews of BDL have already commented on the menu, I will keep mine minimal. As others have noted, there are more dishes than you’d expect for the small physical size of the menu and it is great and fun that (a) you can have nearly all of the dishes in a ‘small’ or ‘large’ portion and that (b) it provides you with a broad if brief tour of some of Italy’s more interesting culinary regions, with ingredients that are meant to be well sourced.

I do have to say that if there are only two of you dining at BDL, it is quite hard to make your mind up about what to order, because there are so many possibilities. But this of course is pleasant quandary. After about 20 minutes of concentration and a few heated glances, we finally decided. As the meal would mostly be sans red meat, I opted for a glass of the waitresses’ recommended 2008 Terre Di Franciacorta Bianco (a Chardonnay/Pinot Bianco blend from Lombardia at £4.70 per glass). It was perfectly quaffable and not bad value for the price.

Amazingly tasty, buttery green olives

Amazingly tasty, buttery green olives

Before the food began arriving, we were served some bread along with a small bowl of beautiful, large green olives with some smaller brown ones. The green olives were definitely some of the best I have tasted, and had a very buttery and rich taste which provided a nice counterpoint to the inherent acidity. They were so good I have forgotten how the smaller brown ones tasted. The same goes for the bread: the focaccia was quite tasty, being warm and full of rich sweet onions, but I can’t for the life of me remember the other bread!

Fried eel, soft shell crab & red prawn with polenta & orange (small)

Fried eel, soft shell crab & red prawn with polenta & orange (small)

Our first dishes arrived a little while later. We started in Campania, according to the menu. I ordered this dish because it sounded like a combination I hadn’t tried before. And I think that is part of the fun of BDL – you can try a lot and if you don’t particularly like something, it won’t be a £30+ mistake you’ll regret for a long time. Sort of like more substantial Italian tapas.

Of the fried elements, I preferred the eel, which was meaty and moist, and the brittle, bittersweet orange. The soft shelled crab was not that crispy on the outside and neither here nor there on the inside, while the shrimp was quite dry and not particularly flavorful. The bed of polenta bed was however very nice and the sharp notes of orange integrated very well with it. A fun dish but a bit of a mixed bag. 6/10.

Veal & pork agnolotti with butter & sage (small)

Veal & pork agnolotti with butter & sage (small)

I liked my plate of pasta better. The butter and sage sauce was rich and toothsome, and the pork and veal were a good combination inside the agnolotti. It was real comfort food, and a plate I would have normally eaten way too quickly, except for one thing. The pasta itself, while it seemed to be made on site, was a bit too thick and hadn’t been cooked through properly around the thicker edges. Therefore, the hard texture and taste of slightly undercooked pasta slowed me down. Don’t get me wrong, I love pasta done al dente, but it just wasn’t right this time, which is a shame as everything else worked. 6.5/10.

Potato gnocchi with sausage ragù (small)

Potato gnocchi with sausage ragù (small)

Luckily, Mrs. LF’s gnocchi were light and fluffy, and we both liked the texture. The sausage itself had a wonderful deep flavor, and all together the sauce was the closest thing Mrs. LF has had to homemade Italian food she was accustomed to eating in Southern Italy when she used to travel there frequently and ate at many a nonna’s table. The problem here was that all of this loveliness was floating in a sea of oil. No exaggeration, the sauce was way too oily and just off-putting. We fished all the bits of sausage and gnocchi out, but left the ocean of oil to be washed away in the kitchen sinks. Also, the chosen variety of grated cheese was very salty, which on top of the already well seasoned sausage made the whole thing too salty. 6/10 (but probably an 8/10 if it wasn’t for the oil…really gross).

Grilled quail with tomato panzanella (small)

Grilled quail with tomato panzanella (small)

For some reason I really fancied quail. And it was pretty good. The bird was very tender and slightly pink inside, with a nice crispy skin. I liked the sweetness and softness of the tomato-soaked bread as a partner with the quail in my mouth too. A simple and well executed little plate of food. I guess the large portion contains two whole quails (?), but I thought this was substantial enough and pretty good value at £8. 6.5/10.

Chilled spinach with lemon & oil (side)

Chilled spinach with lemon & oil (side)

The side of spinach was fine. Very fresh greens with not that much too them, which is what we wanted to balance some of the richer dishes we had ordered. It did seem quite tannic though, as it left a distinct coating in the mouth. 6/10.

Burnt almond granita with bitter chocolate sorbet

Burnt almond granita with bitter chocolate sorbet

After debating between this dessert and the Cassata Siciliana (ricotta, orange and chocolate layered with sponge cake & marzipan), I got excited when I saw four of the bitter chocolate sorbets being served to another table. I am a sucker for big ice cream desserts (remember, I am American), and this really tempted me to the dark side. I asked the waitress if it was preferable, and she said it was really nice, so the deed was done.

Oh, fate is sometimes cruel. It turned out to be an utter disappointment. I don’t know how to put it any more elegantly, but the sorbet just didn’t taste nice. It had none of the bitter chocolate flavor I had wanted, and just kind of didn’t taste like anything. It certainly didn’t taste homemade, and if it was, that was certainly not a good thing in this case. The almond ‘granita’ was just a soft and fluffy amaretto tasting affair, and was too sweet for me. I had expected it to be sort of icy, but no luck…and I certainly didn’t detect any ‘burnt’ almond, just sweetness. We were both disappointed to leave on such a low note, and I guess I ordered an espresso just to have another taste in my mouth before heading out (it was perfectly fine, by the way). 3/10.

It could have been worse...

It could have been worse...

Not the next big thing, but not bad

I had tempered my expectations before dining at BDL, but I still felt sort of let down. Perhaps this was because so many respected food journalists had opined with such flattery about its merits and virtues. Or perhaps it is because we just didn’t order right. I do hate the notion of not ordering the ‘right’ thing, though, as restaurants just shouldn’t put ‘wrong’ dishes on the menu. But I don’t think it was this either. I think it was just the feeling that, with a few minor adjustments, the food could have been so much better. So maybe it was just an off service in the kitchen, who knows. That said, what is clear is that BDL certainly serves up decent Italian food at reasonable prices (for central London) in a very appealing and comfortable dining space. And the menu is good fun too.

The staff were all very pleasant, but we did find ourselves waiting around for long periods of time for someone to notice that we wanted or needed their attention. These often long gaps were all the more strange given that the restaurant wasn’t even half full for most of the time we were there. Maybe they just lost focus as it was the end of the lunchtime service, but I can’t imagine them being so lax in the middle of a completely packed out restaurant.

Despite all of these niggles, I still did like BDL and would return, but certainly won’t expect the world. For me, BDL is just a good, casual Italian restaurant serving reasonably priced food in a fun atmosphere – not the ‘wolf’ the press has made it out to be, devouring all other Italian establishments in the city of smoke.

As a final note, I find it amusing that they added ‘Two Spoons’ to our bill for the shared dessert – luckily the cost was £0.00. 🙂

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 6/10

Food: 6/10

Wine List: 6/10

Wine Selected: 6/10

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only dined at Bocca di Lupo once.*

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